HOUSTON—A birthday just wouldn’t be a birthday for a lot of children without a piñata.
That’s what keeps Juany Favela in business at The Little Pinata Shop, a small storefront and workshop cluttered with colorfully decorated likenesses of everything from sharks to superheroes. Fashioned from bamboo skeletons and old newspapers, held together with a simple flour and water paste, her piñatas reflect the shifting tastes in children’s culture.
"Every cartoon on the TV, they want it," she said. "The most popular now is the Angry Birds."
Whatever character a child wants, it’s not welcome at certain parks in Harris County. A park policy adopted in Precinct 4, which stretches over a wide swath of the northwestern county, specifically forbids piñatas.
Harris County officials say the prohibition is strictly an anti-littering measure, noting that the same policy also forbids other messy party favors like confetti eggs and silly string that park managers say are almost impossible to clean up. But Hispanic activists complained about signs posted in parks that specifically forbade piñatas. And Commissioner Jack Cagle decided to take the signs down while he reviews the policy.
"‘Pinantas Prohibited’ is not a synonym for ‘Do Not Litter,’ it’s a synonym for ‘No Mexicans Allowed,’" said Tony Diaz, the leader of a group called El Librotraficante. "It’s almost as if all the signs that talk about the speed limit were to say ‘20 mph for your low-riders.’"
The policy, which was adopted under former Commissioner Jerry Eversole six years ago and applies only in Precinct 4, covers a wide variety of party accessories.
"All party favors containing paper, confetti, rice, silly string, glitter, or other filling which is designed to pop/break/shatter or otherwise burst and litter our parks are prohibited," the policy reads. "This shall include but is not limited to: poppers, piñatas, confetti eggs, and silly string."
Although some signs also posted the ban on confetti eggs, Diaz has been bothered that some signs specifically singled out piñatas.
"I don’t take it lightly, because if you condone this, it’s condoning a lot of negative stereotypes about Mexican-Americans," Diaz said.
After Diaz complained about the signage – posting on social media, talking on radio stations and inspiring an editorial in the Houston Chronicle – county officials decided to take another look at the policy.
"We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings," said Mark Seegars, a spokesman for Commissioner Jack Cagle. "The signs are coming down while we review the best way to put the message out to people that we need their help in keeping litter out of the parks."
"Wow!" Diaz responded. "That’s fantastic! That’s fantastic!"
Both sides suggested the county could set up specific areas for birthday parties, perhaps even requiring people to sign up for birthday parties and clean up before leaving.
But for the moment, piñatas are still banned in the county parks of Precinct 4.